Thursday, May 31, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Hot Dogs = Serious Business

My sister and I spied this amusing sign during our visit to Millennium Park - incontrovertible proof that Chicagoans take their hot dogs very, very seriously. For more proof, check out this post about a great little place called Portillo's.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Chicago Chowdown: Crumbs Bake Shop

I was so distracted by this past holiday weekend (and by tasty, seasonal treats like Avocado Mayonnaise and All-Butter Pie Crust) that I almost forgot I'm supposed to be catching up on posts from my recent Chicago trip.

Foggy day in the Windy City
This happens every time I travel - because every time I travel I end up eating...a lot (is it wrong to admit that most of my trips are 'inspired' by foods I want to try?). Which means I always return with lots and lots of reviews, ideas and recipes to share. I usually manage to dash off one or two posts before I get distracted...but not this time.

This time, I'm making sure I bring you the goods from Chicago. Especially because today's post is about cupcakes. Fancy, designer cupcakes from the legendary Crumbs Bake Shop.

Those of you who were with me last summer might remember my NYC Chocolate Chip Cookie Showdown  - essentially a battle between the highly touted Jacques Torres cookie and the celebrated cookies from Levain. Both were delicious in their own right (you'll have to read the post to find out who won!), but the whole point of the exercise wasn't so much to discover NYC's best cookie as it was to put these well-known sweet shops to the test.

You see, I'm a bit of a brand name skeptic. While designer names may draw crowds, I can't help but be a little skeptical as I'm compelled to wonder what makes this bag, these clothes, these cupcakes better and more fameworthy than the hundreds of others out there. I guess I'm of the opinion that with reputation comes responsibility - and if I have to hold each and every one of these places personally accountable by filling my belly with their sweet treats, well, that's just a burden I'll have to learn to bear!

Crumbs' Earl Grey Cupcake

On some level, I know that my logic is seriously flawed (I mean, aren't I just feeding the frenzy by purchasing these items?) but it was exactly this kind of tasty, twisted reasoning that brought my sister and me into Crumbs on a Saturday morning. The location we visited was tiny, but seriously crammed with cupcakes. In fact, it took us some minutes before we finally zeroed in on an Earl Grey variety and made our purchase.

In retrospect, I'm really not sure why I chose Earl Grey when other, more sultry offerings like Red Velvet and Dulce de Leche were available. Most likely, it was a combination of the fact that it was still early in the day (so I hadn't had my morning cuppa), and the fact that Earl Grey sounds so much less guilt-inducing than Peanut Butter Cup or Blackbottom Cheesecake Brownie.

In reality, the Earl Grey is probably just as calorie-laden, thanks to the rich slab of buttercream that covers the tea-infused cake, the generous dusting of cupcake crumbs on the side, and the hearty drizzle of caramel that tops it all off. And in case that's not enough, all of this obscures a gooey caramel center which was easily the best part of the whole cupcake.

I love the idea of a tea-infused cake, but I just wasn't completely sold on the execution. While the cake was nicely moist (overly dry cake is one of my celebrity cupcake pet peeves, so Crumbs gets high marks here), and the caramel was a surprisingly complimentary flavor, the whole thing was massively let down by the artificial-tasting frosting. I was expecting a creamy, dreamy, vanilla-scented buttercream, but what I got was starch-white, grocery-store-birthday-cake icing. Not exactly what I was expecting from a $4 celebrity cupcake. True, the Crumbs cupcakes are enormous - my sister and I shared one easily - but even its mammoth size couldn't make up for the unappealingly stiff and waxy frosting.

I'm loathe to pass a verdict on Crumbs on the basis of one cupcake, but I will say that next time I'm craving an Earl Grey cupcake, I'll be making my own. I guess I have Crumbs to thank for that tasty, tea-time inspiration!

Crumbs Bake Shop on Urbanspoon
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Monday, May 28, 2012

All-Butter Pie Crust

Well folks, it may not officially be summer for another few weeks, but Memorial Day weekend has passed and it's scorching hot outside, so I think that means we can declare it pie season! Few things say summer like a fresh fruit pie, and no fruit pie is complete without a gorgeous, flaky crust.  Many recipes rely on vegetable shortening to produce flaky layers, but this recipe proves that producing a blue ribbon-worthy pastry is more technique than trans fats (okay, butter is plenty fatty, too - but at least it tastes better!).

Whole wheat flour lends this crust a darker color, but it's still flaky and buttery
In order to produce the perfect flaky crust, however, there are a few things you should remember:

1) Pie crust likes to be cold - very, very cold. Those prized, flaky layers are the product of bits of butter melting as the dough bakes. In order for those bits of butter to melt during baking (and not before) they need to be cold. Very cold. Got it? Do what you must to keep your butter cold - even if it means chilling your mixing bowls, running your hands under cold water before handling the dough, and returning the rolled and cut crust to the fridge before filling. If that's what it takes to get flaky layers, it's worth it.

See those bits of butter in the dough? Those are flaky layers in the making!

2) Use all-purpose flour. I know, I'm a hypocrite. The crust pictured in this post is made with whole wheat flour and it tastes fine, but it's not nearly as light or flaky as it should/could be. Trust me, just use all-purpose. Over-achievers can even sift or whisk it before mixing (I'm not really sure if this makes a difference, but it makes you feel better!)

Whole wheat flour lends a nice 'nutty' flavor, but can make crusts dry and unappealing

3) Mix your dough by hand. I swear I'm not just saying this because I don't own a food processor (although that's obviously a factor). I honestly believe handmade crusts are flakier, and that's because you have more control over the size and distribution of your butter pieces. Food processing makes it too easy to over mix, leading to tough, chewy crusts.

My vintage pastry cutter has seen better days - but it still works like a charm

4) Go easy on the water. Are your crusts turning out tough and leathery, even though you've chilled your butter to Arctic temperatures, cut it in by hand, and used the snowiest of snow-white all-purpose flours? You're probably using too much water. Add it in gradually. Gradually. And be sure not to over mix. Dough should still be a little shaggy/crumbly when you're rolling it out. Don't worry, it will come together.

Hand-crimped, whole wheat pie crust

Okay, now that my pedantic nit-picking has totally put you off pie crusts forever, let me say one more thing...pie crusts really aren't that easy to screw up. Sure, it takes a bit of know-how and flair (or a lot of beginner's luck) to produce a perfectly flaky pastry, but it also takes a bit of effort to produce a piece of floury shoe leather. Chances are, your crust will be perfectly adequate, so give yourself some room to practice and try different techniques, and don't worry too much about failure. Once you've mastered the mystery of the flaky crust, I guarantee you'll be hooked!

All-Butter Pie Crust

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour (whole wheat works, but gives a 'sturdier' crust)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 Tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup butter, very, very, very chilled, and diced
1/4 cup ice water (minus the ice)

In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, salt and sugar. Using a fork or pastry cutter, cut in the chilled butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs (you should see pea-sized chunks of butter - these are important!) Stir in water 1 tablespoon at a time, using a rubber spatula, until mixture begins to come together.

You can go ahead and use your hands to bring it together into a ball - just don't let it get too warm! Place the ball of dough on a large piece of plastic wrap and form it into a 1-inch thick disk. Wrap tightly and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or overnight. Dough will keep in the fridge for a few days, or weeks if frozen. Be sure to wrap it well if you're freezing it to protect it from freezer burn (and that nasty 'freezer' smell that things sometimes get). Defrost in the fridge for one day before you plan to use it.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Avocado 'Mayonnaise' (or Egg-Free, Vegan Mayonnaise) - the perfect condiment for Memorial Day cookouts!

Matt and I are now firmly entering into the preparation stages for our upcoming move. It's exciting (our first time in a real place - with spare rooms, stairs, and a real lawn!) and a little stressful (we'll be packing and moving everything ourselves) but let's be honest, it hasn't really left me a lot of time for blogging.

Thank goodness, then, that today's recipe is ultra-short and super-simple. In fact, it only has two ingredients, but don't let that fool you, it's big on taste and a perfect accompaniment to all those juicy burgers - of the beef, veggie, or portobello variety - that you'll be grilling for Memorial Day this weekend!

Avocado 'mayonnaise' may sound a little unusual, but it's a great, natural alternative to the regular kind - filled with healthier fats and also perfectly appropriate for vegans. The flavor is surprisingly similar - especially when spread on burgers or in sandwiches. It's also great with Mexican food, and if you're a bit skeptical, you can think of it like extra smooth and creamy guacamole!

I happened upon this tasty condiment when I was preparing some super-ripe avocados for freezing - you'll notice that the preparation method is almost identical, which also means that you can make a big batch and freeze the leftovers without any issues (they'll keep in the fridge for a couple of days, but anything beyond that and I recommend freezing).

Whether you're not a fan of regular mayonnaise, just sick of buying it, or want to try out a new use for avocados, give this 'mayonnaise' a try - you won't be disappointed.

Easy Avocado Mayonnaise

Ripe avocado, seed and skin removed
Lime or Lemon juice (1 Tablespoon per avocado)
Salt, to taste

In a blender (I use my mock Magic Bullet) blend avocado flesh until smooth and creamy. Add 1 Tablespoon of lime or lemon juice (lime is recommended) for each avocado blended. Blend again until mixture is light and smooth - it should be somewhat frothy. Add salt to taste. Keep refrigerated until ready to use. Enjoy as you would regular mayonnaise - on sandwiches or burgers, or as a condiment for mexican food, pasta, or baked potatoes. Store leftovers in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or frozen for up to 3 months.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Pinned There, Done That: Lego Cake and Happy Birthday, Matt!

Disclaimer: I've never pretended that The Traveling Spoon is an aspirational blog. Rather, I strive to make my recipes and ideas attainable and accessible - and if any post has ever proved that, it's this one! So if you've ever suffered a kitchen snafu or doubted your culinary prowess for a moment, I hope this post this post is a boost to your self esteem - I've been there, too!

Before the 'Happy Birthdays,' the gratuitous cake photos, and the shocking excess of festive food coloring, let me just be upfront with you: I am not a cake decorator. 

Unfortunately, this is a fact I wasn't fully aware of until I began this project (I used to be so good at artistic things when I was younger - what happened?). So as you view the photographic evidence contained in this post, I ask you to remember that this project comes, not from a place of Wilton cake decorating classes and handy offset spatulas, but from a place of love - for Matthew, who loves Legos and who, after a month spent on Army training in the wilds of Louisiana, deserved a bit of a birthday surprise.

And boy, was this cake surprising! I was surprised at how much actual cake I had to bake (two full boxes - and yes, I 'cheated'); I was surprised at how much frosting it required (so surprised, in fact, that I completely ran out of powdered sugar - perhaps I should have cheated); I was surprised at my lack of red food coloring (which is why the 'red' Lego is actually kind of pink); and, most of all, I was surprised at just how much skill this 'simple' cake required (or maybe I'm really just that bad at cake decorating).

But appearances aside, this is a great cake idea (thanks, Pinterest and Betty Crocker!) - and as much as I might have wanted to hide my somewhat botched version from the world, I just know there are lots of Lego-lovers out there who would love this cake.

So enough preamble, lets get on with the process. I should note that I've made a few changes to the original version - most notably swapping out the marshmallow 'nubs' on top for mini-cupcakes, which I trimmed into the appropriate shape. Perhaps the marshmallows would have been a little easier to decorate, and wouldn't require the use of two cake mixes, but I think the mini-cupcakes taste better. You can make that decision for yourself, but my instructions are for the all cake version.

How to Make a Lego Cake

1) Prepare two packages of chocolate cake mix according to package directions. Fill a greased and floured mini-muffin pan with enough cake batter to make at least 24 mini cupcakes. Pour the rest of the cake batter into a greased and floured 9x13-inch baking pan (it's best to use one with straight rather than inclined sides if possible). Bake according to package directions, bearing in mind that cupcakes will cook much quicker than the cake.

2) Cool in pan for 10-15 minutes and then remove to a wire rack to cool completely. Chill cake at least one hour, until firm.

3) Using a sharp knife, cut the muffin tops off of the mini cupcakes until they are a uniform height, with a flat surface on top. Store in an airtight container in the freezer until ready to decorate. Cut the rounded dome from the top of the full cake to make a flat surface. Then cut cake crosswise into thirds to make the large Lego blocks. Cut one of the thirds in half to make two even squares (these will be the small Legos). Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze until ready to decorate - at least one hour, or overnight.

Trimming the mini cupcakes

4) Meanwhile, mix your icing using your favorite recipe (I used this one from Savory Sweet Life, which gives a great texture and taste, if a tiny smudge too buttery) and tint to the desired color. You'll need about 1 to 1 1/2 cups icing for each large Lego, and 3/4 cup for each small Lego. Note: I used cheap liquid food coloring, but you can and should feel free to use the posh stuff!

Crumb-coated, re-frozen and ready to go!

5) Place cake pieces on a covered tray and frost each with a thin layer of colored frosting to act as a crumb coat (I did mine one at a time and returned them to the freezer for a bit after icing - same thing with the mini cupcakes). Once the crumb coat has set, add a final coat of frosting to each cake. Using a dab of icing, attach four mini cupcakes to each small block and eight to each large block. Cover smoothly with the appropriately colored icing (use an icing spatula if you have one - I imagine it gives a smoother finish than a butter knife!). Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.

And that, my friends, is all it takes to make a Lego cake!

...Okay, so maybe not all, because it's time for a few notes: You may notice that a couple of my blocks are stacked - that's because I ran out of red food coloring and frosting. I'm not sure I'd recommend this method because it makes them harder to frost, but if you've got decorating skills (or you're also low on food dye or frosting) go for it!

Also, let me just say that I'll never disdain fondant icing ever, ever again - I may not like the taste, but I imagine it would make this cake look a lot better. If you have the skill and patience for it, give it a try - and feel free to share some photos!

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The Bohemian Crystal, Westmont, IL

Deep dish pizza may top most people's list of Chicago must-eats, but when my family visits Chicago, there's only one place we have to go - The Bohemian Crystal in Westmont. Back in the early days of The Traveling Spoon, I dedicated a post to exploring my culinary heritage, and The Bohemian Crystal was an important landmark on the journey.

Legendary Breaded Pork Tenderloin and Bread Dumplings at the Bohemian Crystal, Westmont, IL

To make a long story a bit shorter, I trace my culinary roots to the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany, so the Bohemian Crystal - which specializes in Bohemian, Slovak and Moravian cuisine (with a few classic German and Polish entrees thrown in for good measure) - is the perfect place to sate my ethnic food cravings. But this restaurant isn't just a mecca for my extended family, it's also a favorite of the sizable Czech population that makes its home in the Chicago suburbs.

Main Dining Room at the Bohemian Crystal

My family has been going to 'the Crystal,' for as long as I can remember - quite possibly, in fact, since before I was born, and I'm quite sure the decor hasn't changed a bit since those early days. Stepping into the Crystal really is like stepping back in time: leather-backed chairs, low, heavy-beamed ceilings, and brick interior accents speak to its 1960s-70s heyday, as does the superannuated clientele. On any given visit, my siblings and I are usually the youngest patrons by a few decades at least, but this is actually a positive because it means that the Crystal really understands good, stick-to-your ribs food, with generous portions that represent a value for money reflective of a bygone era. Simply put, it's good, old-fashioned food and a lot of it!

Start 'em young: my nephew, James' first visit to the Crystal

The Crystal is modeled on a traditional, Old World Czech restaurant, which means it's dark, dated, and decorated with masses of tchotzkes - including, of course, its namesake Bohemian crystal. Add to that the traditional dress of the young, female waitresses and you could be forgiven for imagining yourself in a pub in Prague.

So now that I've set the scene, what about the food? Well, since I've been to the Crystal so many times, you think I'd be able to give you a detailed run-down of the menu....and as a champion of variety, I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I've only ever ordered one thing off their ridiculously extensive menu (seriously, you might want to do an online recon to nail down a few options beforehand, or you'll be reading for a while). That's right - I've ordered the same meal every time I've visited the Crystal, but when your meal is as good and authentic as their Breaded Pork Tenderloin, why mess with perfection?

See? Perfection.

The Crystal is known for hearty favorites like duck, lamb shank, pork tenderloin, or veal cutlets, but it also boasts an extensive list of sides, including potato pancakes, both bread- and potato-based dumplings, veggies, and sauerkraut - all of which can be topped with the thick brown gravy that they serve in abundance. Each entree includes a choice of sides and is served with a choice of soup or salad and some rye bread and rolls. You also get a bottomless mug of coffee or tea and a choice of dessert to finish.

Liver Dumpling Soup with Rye bread

The breaded tenderloin is massive and crisp (ask for a lunch portion or half portion if you're intimidated), but lightly breaded and usually not too greasy. Taken alongside some pillowy bread dumplings - my favorite part of the meal - and a river of molten gravy, it's a richly satisfying culinary trip to the 'old country.' I usually preface mine with a slice of caraway-infused rye bread and a bowl of liver dumpling soup, popular for its clear broth and tender, lightly spiced dumplings.

Poppyseed Kolacky

For dessert, I always choose kolacky, but kolacky-lovers should be warned that it's sometimes a bit hit-or-miss with the quality of the pastries at the Crystal. They're sourced from different bakeries and suppliers in the area (I always imagine some little babushka churning out hundreds of pastries in her kitchen!) which means that they're often slightly different from visit to visit. Thankfully, we were in luck this past time and feasted on some of the fattest, juiciest poppyseed kolacky I've ever seen!

Fruit Kolacky

Sure it's a nostalgic eatery for me - just the smell of the Crystal's over-strong coffee is enough to bring back memories of childhood visits with my grandparents and extended family - but it's also a great choice for anyone who values good, rich food and good value. Of course, you can't keep such a great place secret, so if you find yourself craving old world favorites you might want to make a reservation - the Crystal is especially packed on Sunday afternoons and is closed on Mondays.

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Friday, May 18, 2012

Free National Parks Pass for Military Families!

In know I've already done some flag-waving for Military Spouse Appreciation Day, but you'll have to bear with me because I'm back with another military-themed post!

It's National Armed Forces Week and I've discovered an opportunity which is just too good not to share: starting on Armed Forces Day - tomorrow, May 19th -  active duty military members will be eligible for a free annual National Parks pass to pay tribute to their service!

Bryce Canyon National Park, UT

Those of you who've followed The Traveling Spoon for a while may remember that I have a special affinity for our country's National Parks. Last year, Matt and I had the absolutely amazing experience of touring our way through the great Parks of the American West - including the Grand Canyon, Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park (you can read all about our experiences here, here, and here).

We bought our own annual pass (still totally worthwhile at a cost of $80) to fund our multi-park adventure - in addition to taking advantage of some free admission during National Parks Week - but thanks to this amazing offer, we could do it all over again for free!

Zion National Park, UT

I can't even begin to tell you how excited this offer makes me! As a travel-lover, I've always got my eye on the road - and I'd be lying if I said that road wasn't usually in a far-flung, exotic locale - but touring our very own National Parks last year helped me realize just how much America really has to offer. Our country is as amazingly diverse in its landscapes as it is in its people, and while I consider myself reasonably well-traveled, I know I've barely scratched the surface. Thanks to this National Parks offer, I'm looking forward to going further!

If you think you might be eligible for this offer, or simply want more details to pass on to a friend, check out the official verbiage from the White House and the U.S. Geological Survey.

For more details about our experiences 'out West,' (including a possible itinerary and a 'best of' round-up of all the places we visited) check out my three-part National Parks series: Part I, Part II, and Part III!

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Friday, May 11, 2012

Happy Military Spouse Appreciation Day!

Although The Traveling Spoon isn't exactly a military spouse blog, I'd like to take the opportunity to give a shout-out to all my friends, male and female, who are married to someone in the military.

As someone who's been on both sides of the military/civilian divide, I know the value of steady support at home and the huge amount of perseverance and patience that's required of spouses on a daily basis. It's a interesting life we've chosen - at times delightful and frustrating - but today is a day to be grateful for the opportunities we've had, the friends we've made, and the continued safekeeping of the servicemembers we love - Happy Military Spouse Appreciation Day!

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Summer's Best Strawberry Sour Cream Cake

As you can imagine, I didn't get the chance to do much baking during my recent travels, but I did whip up a few tasty treats for the trip - like this fresh, summery, Strawberry Sour Cream Cake. With it's rich sour cream batter studded with ruby-ripe strawberries, and covered in a crackly, baked-sugar topping, this cake is a summertime stunner - and a perfect choice for a Mother's Day brunch.

I've always been a fan of sour cream cakes. They're so moist, and usually a little healthier than all-butter versions. They're also incredibly simple to make and usually travel well - two characteristics that make them ideal for road trips or potlucks. This version can be made with any berry (you may notice that the original, from Gourmet, included blueberries and buttermilk!) but it's especially perfect for showcasing those early summer strawberries (you can actually cut the sugar a bit if you use strawberries - other berries may require the full amount).

In my opinion, one of the best features of this cake is the lovely, crackly sugar 'crust' that forms during baking. It provides a great contrast to the softness interior and the juiciness of the strawberries. If you're planning on making this cake well ahead of time, I recommend popping it in the oven for a few minutes before serving to crisp up the top again. Then you can just eat it as-is, allow it to cool, or drench the whole thing in pouring cream (can you guess which one I'd do?). Of course, with a cake this summery and simple, you can hardly go wrong!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Giordano's: Chicago's Famous Stuffed Pizza

This is quite possibly one of the most long-awaited posts ever to appear on The Traveling Spoon, but for fans of deep dish and enormously cheesy pizzas, it's worth the wait. The pies served up at Giordano's are, without exception, the most gooey, cheesy, saucy, hefty and, well, simply enormous pizzas I've ever seen. I offer this as evidence:

That mass of crust, sauce and molten cheese may have just blown your pizza-loving mind, but before I launch into my review, I have something very important to disclose: I'm not a deep dish pizza girl. I know it's a disgrace to my largely Chicago-based extended family, but I'll take a thin crust over a deep dish any day - and don't even get me started on stuffed pizzas! I love the crispness of a Neapolitan pie, and the bendy, trendy flexibility of a New York slice. I love the little bubbles that erupt from the wafer-thin crusts of wood fired pizza, and think that dough should be more than just a vehicle for sauce, veggies, and meat.

With all that in mind, you're probably wondering why I ever set foot in Giordano's, right? Well, apart from a serious case of 'When in Chicago...,' sometimes even the most devoted thin-crust lover just needs a bit more. And where better to get it than at Chicago's premier stuffed pizza eatery, Giordano's.

Although the restaurant offers other classic staples of Italian fare, the pizza is definitely the main attraction. Unlike some of the other Chicago deep dish hotspots (I won't go into the rivalries here!), Giordano's specializes in stuffed pizza - not stuffed crust, stuffed pizza.

Essentially, each pizza is a layer of buttery crust, suitably weighed down with the toppings of your choice, smothered with masses of molten cheese, topped with another layer of buttery crust and slathered with tangy-and-sweet tomato sauce. With this method, you can easily see why these bad boys are called pies!

Anatomy of a Slice

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Well friends, I'm finally home! What was supposed to be a 'few days' visiting family turned into three weeks spread across the whole eastern third of the country (okay, mostly Chicago and Western New York). I rode a night bus, had my first Amtrak experience, and even flew in a plane piloted by my little sister!

I devoured dumplings in Chinatown, checked out the famous Crumbs bakery, and took on a giant cinnamon roll. I hugged sisters, kissed babies, and caught up with friends. It was whirlwind, exhausting...and absolutely amazing!

I know I promised a few updates from the road, but the truth is that I was hardly in one place long enough to write - and somehow, in the midst of all this action-packed excitement, I wound up with a debilitating back injury. It's not the first time my back has played up, but possibly the worst. At times the pain was so bad that I actually lost interest in food - if you can imagine that!

Thankfully, I'm feeling much better now - and I certainly hope some of you are still hanging around, because, boy, do I have a lot of great posts to share. I'll be showcasing a few tasty treats and some newfound travel tips, as well as a few recipes gleaned from the last few weeks. But first, of course, I'd better deliver that pizza I promised - stay tuned for a look at Giordano's: Chicago's Famous Stuffed Pizza!

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